School was an oppressive regime; each day began and ended with the Bible read at us and preaching to follow. The only prolonged periods of free time were on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Being in the middle of Dartmoor, Sunday did not offer many possibilities, but on Saturday the old school bus transported us to the outside world. The outside world was filled with people who did not believe the world was created in six days and did not believe the end of the world was imminent; its sheer ordinariness was a delight.
The range of destinations rarely changed. The bus set off from the grey Dartmoor buildings and rolled through the narrow stone walled lanes before descending through open moorland to the town of Bovey Tracey. Occasionally, it would stop to allow some staff member to get off. Then the route was Newton Abbot, Torquay (where you could get off if you were fifteen) and Paignton, where it parked for an hour and a half before beginning the return journey. On very rare occasions, there would be a trip to Exeter, or, even rarer, to Plymouth. Going to Plymouth offered the opportunity of going to Home Park to watch Plymouth Argyle play, if they were at home that week. Crowds were large in those days and, in retrospect, it seems odd that we were allowed to wander off and mingle with 20,000 people.
There must have been many, many hours spent in Paignton and Torquay on Saturday afternoons, but thirty-five years later, hardly any memories remain.
The only definitive memory of Paignton is of a railway station and a car showroom where Rolls Royce cars were on sale. What the town was like, what shops there were, where we walked, has gone beyond recall.
Torquay offers more recollections. There was a cafe where three of us would drink tea from cups and saucers which had a fruit machine against the back wall where you could gamble 2p pieces. There were records to be browsed in Smith’s and Menzies’ and maybe there was a record shop too, a hazy image of a place with posters lurks at the edge of the consciousness, but perhaps it is a piece of retrojection.
Despite spending much of each Saturday afternoon going through 7” vinyl singles, 12” albums and audiocasettes, I can only remember actually buying one record – The Shangri Las 1976 release of ‘Leader of the Pack’, how the other records from that time came to be amongst the singles that get an occasional air on the Dansette record player is a mystery.
There were a few occasions where the trip to Torquay offered the opportunity of a rendezvous with a girl, but they were very few, the staff were disapproving of ‘that sort of thing’, so what else happened on all those Saturdays through the winter months when venturing near the sea front brought only a soaking? No idea.
There is a school reunion planned for the summer, but what is the point of going back to a place when it is not possible to go back in time to remember what has been forgotten?
Remembering unhappy days incarcerated in boarding schools seems to be a recurring feature of British-Irish middle class autobiography. Nicholas Montsarrat, author of The Cruel Sea and other popular bestsellers, has a couple of grim chapters about his schooldays at Winchester in his autobiography (Life is a Four Letter Word), and even Winston Churchill talks about the idiocy of learning to decline the Latin noun mensa at Harrow (mensa, mensa, mensam, mensae, mensae, mensa). I spent two tender years being schooled away from home. It was spartan living in an unheated dormitory, the refectory food was repetitious and boring, we were trooped off Sunday mass along country roads spattered with cow dung, and oh oh oh, I was sometimes slapped with a stick by teacher Miss Flaherty for getting my sums wrong. All I will say now fifty + years removed is that it toughened me up physically and emotionally. Much of my career has been spent abroad and I have enjoyed it. I only ever met two former pupils of the prison house. One became a manager in the rock music business, and the other progressed in the arts world.
Do many French, German or Dutch people write about unhappy childhood at boarding schools?
I went to a special school because I had asthma and had missed so much ordinary school; everyone there had their fees paid by local authorities. (We couldn’t have afforded a small fraction of the £700 a term that the place charged in fees). It was a toughening experience, but that was an explicit part of its purpose.
Our daughter goes to boarding school and loves it!
Ian, Only go back to enjoy the views across Dartmoor and the view down across Newton-Abbot and out across Torbay from Hay Tor…I wouldn’t bother with Torquay…no cow dung on the roads now, big business farms keep the animals in sheds now……..You may get to drive over a few sheep droppings though…..I am currently working on the outskirts of Newton Abbot……
I go back to the Moor every couple of years, but won’t go back to the school (which is now an adventure centre)
I remember meeting you in Torquay 😉